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Why is kitchen ‘nhà’ bếp not ‘phòng’?

Most rooms in the house have ‘room’ (phòng) as part of their name. Phòng ngủ (bedroom), phòng khách (living room), phòng ăn (dining room) but bathroom and kitchen are a notable exception: they use nhà (house or building).

This seems weird in this day and age where houses and flats are self-contained but think back several years to when outhouses were the norm, and it starts to make sense.

Traditionally Vietnamese people also cook outside of the main house, usually in outbuildings to protect the cooking area from wind and rain.

Not really the picture I was looking for, but the building on the left could be the kitchen... Source.

Not really the picture I was looking for, but many countryside houses have outbuildings… Source.

Having outbuildings is still a really common set-up in the countryside. In cities, where space is an issue, these facilities have been taken inside yet the names remain: nhà bếp (kitchen) and nhà vệ sinh (bathroom).

Is it phòng tắm or nhà vệ sinh?

Nowadays phòng tắm (where tắm means shower or wash) is often used for an inside bathroom, like you’d find in a house or hotel room. Whereas, like in English, toilet facilities in restaurants or other public places would be nhà vệ sinh.

A guide to Vietnamese names, titles and what to call someone

Have you ever wondered what to call your Vietnamese friend? Which name to use? Or why there are so many Nguyễns?

Read on to find the answers to all these questions and more in this guide to Vietnamese names and addressing people.

Common Vietnamese last names

The most common Vietnamese surname is Nguyễn. About 40% of Vietnamese people have this last name, taken from the Nguyễn Emperors, the last dynasty of Vietnam. Back in those days, the surname of the Emperor was often used like a clan name.

Other common surnames such as Trần and Lê have a similar origin, which is why these names are so common in Vietnam.

The most common Vietnamese surnames. Source.

The most common Vietnamese surnames. Source.

Vietnamese titles

However this homogeneity of last names is not that important as in Vietnam surnames are not used very often. They are used for official paperwork and when filling in forms. But you’d never address someone as Mr or Ms Nguyễn.

So how do you address someone correctly in Vietnamese?

In informal situations, given names are used as expected. (Eg. You’d call me Thảo.)

In formal situations you’d call them Mr or Ms Forename. For example, Ms Thảo (chị Thảo or cô Thảo depending who’s talking) or Mr Vũ (anh Vũ).

In very formal situations you may use Ông or Bà instead, or you may include the person’s title like the late General Giáp (Đại tướng Giáp).

Vietnamese name order

Another difference is that names are written the opposite way round to Western names, with the surname first and the given name last. Vietnamese usually have 3 or 4 names in total.

Let’s look at an example: Nguyễn Thị Minh Khai. This common street name comes from a historical figure of that name.

  • Nguyễn is the surname and that comes first.
  • Thị is a common and traditional middle name which denotes that the person is female. The male equivalent of Thị is Văn. Many years ago almost everybody had a name like this (especially Thị). These names are still used nowadays but not to the extent they were before.
  • Minh and Khai are given names. Sometimes people have one, sometimes they have two. While each name has its own meaning, certain combinations of names have special meanings.

Most Vietnamese people go by this final name – so in this case we’d usually call this person Khai (or Ms Khai). However, some people prefer to use both given names. This is often happens with very common names like Anh: people will introduce themselves with the two used names together like Vân Anh or Minh Anh.

This second given name can also be useful if there are several people with the same given name (eg. 2+ Khai’s in the same class/office), we can be specific and refer to her as Minh Khai.

Pronouncing common Vietnamese first names

To wrap up, here’s a video from Every Day Viet covering the pronunciation of some common male and female given names in Vietnam.

Over to you: What do you think about Vietnamese names? Did you know the story behind Nguyễn before?

ơi is an endearing word in Vietnamese

ơi is one of my favourite Vietnamese words. You may know it’s useful, but did you also know it’s endearing?

Let’s look at the most common uses of the Vietnamese ơi.

1. Em ơi

(Or anh ơi or chị ơi.)

You should address him as "anh ơi" unless you're sure he's younger than you. If that's the case you can use "em ơi".

Getting a waiter’s attention. By the way if you’re not sure about your relative ages, it’s politer to address him as “anh ơi” rather than “em ơi”.

A common phrase and essential to anyone spending time in Vietnam, yelling ‘anh ơi’ or ’em ơi’ at a waiter to get his attention sounds rude to an English speaker’s ear because the word ‘oi’ in English has negative connotations.

Not so, for ơi. It’s used all the time for getting someone’s attention but also can be used when talking to someone – such as to address your teacher.

I miss this simple but clear way to get someone’s attention. In English the best we have is ‘excuse me’.

2. Trời ơi

Literally speaking, ơi is used when addressing the heavens in the universal exclamation ‘trời ơi’. This southern phrase is a mild phrase – meaning something like OMG or heavens!. It’s widely used by young and old alike.

In the north you might hear ối giời ơi.

3. To show affection

So far we’ve seen ơi used to get attention.

It may surprise you that ơi is used as a term of affection. Between parents and children. Between friends. Between lovers. Calling your special someone ’em ơi’ or ‘anh ơi’ is actually very sweet and endearing! Like saying ‘dear’.

The French influence

For 67 years, Vietnam was part of French Indochina. You can still see pockets of French influence from grand old buildings in the cities to the presence of Catholicism, right down to the fluffy baguettes you can find everywhere in Vietnam.

Linguistically, French and Vietnamese are very different. Although French was used for official business and in education during that period, finding people in Vietnam who can speak French today is pretty rare.

But nonetheless some words have been borrowed for foreign items like foods and other such objects that were introduced to Vietnam by the French. These words have of course undergone spelling and pronunciation changes to make them Vietnamese, but the French root is still easily seen.

This Taipei Times article has a more extensive list, but some of those words have definitely fallen out of use in modern Saigon.

Probably the very first, and most significant, French influence on the Vietnamese language was the creation by a French missionary of the Vietnamese roman script (called quốc ngữ) – the writing system which replaced Chinese-style ideograms.

The story behind street names in Vietnam

The streets in every town and city in Vietnam all seem to have the same names: Hùng Vương, Lẽ Duẩn, Lý Tự Trọng, Nguyễn Trãi, Nguyễn Huệ, Nguyễn Thị Minh Khai…

The reason being that their names are taken from important people or events from Vietnamese history. (Aside from Hanoi’s old quarter where the names take after the trades that could be found on those streets.)

Hai Bà Trưng – two sisters who fought against the Chinese way back in the 1st century AD.

Đinh Tiên Hoàng – the first emperor of Vietnam after 1000 years of Chinese dominance. 10th Century.

Mạc Đĩnh Chi – a court official and ambassador to China. 14th Century.

Bùi Thị Xuân – a woman general who fought against the Nguyen army. 18th Century.

Nguyễn Du – one of Vietnam’s most famous poets. 19th Century.

Even a handful of Europeans who made waves in Vietnam such as Pasteur, the famous microbiologist, and French-Swissman Yersin, credited as the founder of Da Lat, get on the map in some cities.

But it’s not just about people.

Điện Biên Phủ – the location of a notable battle which signalled the defeat of French forces in Indochina in the 20th Century.

Cách Mạng Tháng 8 is a large and busy road in Ho Chi Minh City. Due to the long name, many expats refer to it as ‘CMT eight’. I never gave the name any thought, until one day I found out that the name meant ‘August Revolution’.

Want to know more about street names in Vietnam? Check out this labelled google map of HCMC:

Street names in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam

Interactive google map explaining the meaning behind street names in Ho Chi Minh City. Source.

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